Twitter activism inspires change through movements of people, even as women face ongoing harassment and threats of violence. CEO Dick Costolo admits "we have not effectively dealt with this problem even remotely to the degree we should have by now," so how will the social media giant handle the problem?
What happens when Twitter turns activism into a real change for women?
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Sexism is a very real problem for many women, especially in the digital age where trolls use anonymity to actively harass and threaten. And as the legal systems slowly catch up with technology, often years behind, women flock to places where people listen and empathize.
The Guardian's Laura Bates describes the importance of Twitter activism as a chance to communicate in a willingly indifferent world when it comes to the issues of feminism and women. "Don’t underestimate the catharsis and empowerment that can come simply from telling your story and having it accepted and believed." So she wasn’t particularly surprised when the British Journal of Social Psychology’s study on the phenomenon revealed what she had known all along: victims of harassment, assault, sexism, and a misogynistic culture need a support system.
Twitter provides the opportunity to use or create a hashtag and find common stories, to bond and related, to find a voice when no one else offers the same. The beginnings of #YesAllWomen began with such a start, to explain what it feels like to be a woman in society. Similarly, #WhyIStayed listed reasons why women stayed with abusive partners and how manipulation manages to distance a victim from a support system.
Even the Super Bowl featured some TV commercials and spots that discussed how the world saw #LikeAGirl as insult while little girls and young women expressed a belief in not believing the words. Of course, as many women know, those little girls may grow up to be jaded when they realize the world isn’t listening to the screams in the middle of a void.
While the women tweeting may not be gathering in a room, plotting the next move like a scene in an action flick, social media highlights and showcases moments of women disempowerment on a global scale. A woman assaulted on the street in the United States may find a similar story from a woman living in Egypt. The feelings of degradation and impotency are not necessarily replicas of the same experience, but are linked by a globalized society’s unsympathetic ignorance.
Unfortunately, even the clearest moments of camaraderie can be ruined by people looking to cause trouble. As The Verge noted earlier this week, Twitter is aware that the site’s harassment and reporting policies aren’t great. In fact, CEO Dick Costolo stated in an internal memo that "we suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years."
What does that mean for women looking to use activism for a better, more balanced world?
"I'm frankly ashamed of how poorly we've dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO." Well, Costolo's awareness that Twitter seems to have better stop measures for spam than trolls is a step in the right direction. And the victim-blaming mentality, the need to cater to a specific crowd at the cost of users creating content used to sell business contracts and very expensive deals, does need to be worked on.
How willing is the site to look after targeted users if it took Lindy West having to handle someone that used her dead father’s image as a tool of trolling harassment on her own before acknowledging a prior lack of commitment?
Going on to say "there's no excuse" and the willingness to "take full responsibility for not being more aggressive on this front" offers some kind of commitment, but level amount remains to be seen. Women users have urged the site to do more for over a year. As a large portion of the user base, being ignored or told that you do not have the right to report on inappropriate or dangerous behavior does not create a mutually beneficial partnership in any stretch of the imagination.
In September, I reported on one user's chronic harassment of women and the fact Twitter would not allow someone not directly involved to say 'this is not okay’ in response to very clear threatening language. Not to mention, the fact the user kept appearing with new names, which were floated around and discussed by the harassed but never taken seriously by the company. That was the reason I wrote the story in the first place. All I wanted to do was report on inappropriate behavior and not receive an email that boiled down to not your name, not your problem.
No one lives in a vacuum.
Frankly, being physically assaulted shouldn't be the only accepted proof when defending oneself in a social media platform known for creating change. After all, Twitter's been lauded in the rise of the Arab Spring, how communities joined together. And for the cleanup of Tottenham after the 2011 riots. No one can forget #Ferguson—an ongoing movement of people asking the federal government on what justifies the price of a life killed by police. In truth, just the threat of hurting someone should be sufficient to labeled offensive enough to be kicked off the platform.
Bates reminds audiences that "hundreds explicitly mention in their tweets or posts that they have never felt able to share their story with anyone before — even partners or family — let alone reporting it to the police." And right now, Twitter is a very critical stage in setting the tone of what is allowable and not.
While Costolo promises "we're going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them", victims of harassment may wait for definitive results first.
After all, women have watched with growing horror as feminists and activists have been harassed nonstop for months and Twitter simply sweeps the actions under the rug. It's easy to feel abandoned by the site, a necessary bridge in communication for many people nowadays, when victims face death threats and gendered slurs for trying to change the status quo. And Costolo acknowledges it, so the question turns into how will this change the core women users’ image of the site
Will the same man who harasses women, threatening to kill children and rape mothers, really be kicked off, or is all for show and making the board happy with some sort of ‘remedy’?
And effective tweets do create a dialogue between users and people in positions of power. When discussing the importance in Twitter activism, Bates specifically highlights that online activism can turn into offline results.
The Guardian’s Everyday Sexism project uses collected stories to open dialogues politicians and lobbyists and point out the kind of behaviors that constituents face daily. How finding people who listen, who validate an experience that’s been otherwise ignored, is vital in forming new ways of combating sexual harassment or gendered limitations in something as simple as professional clothing.
Or in the case Project Guardian, open communication helped to manage the “retraining of 2,000 members of staff around victim-centred principles, and has raised reporting of sexual offences on London transport by 35%” in conjunction with the British Transport Police. It’s a fine line, using social media as a platform, but the ability to have a voice in a sexist world is a very important.
Online activism is real and Twitter opens the world to a new wave of technologically-minded women fighting for prominence and equality. Twitter may only allow 140 characters per tweet; however, those 140 characters can change the world when hundreds, thousands, and millions of voices speak up at once. Now it is up to Twitter’s board to implement and demand change on how loudly those voices are heard.
So how about that change, Twitter?